This blog-post is all my own work.
According to a front-page article in The Times last Saturday, there’s an ‘epidemic’ of plagiarism in British universities. Such public attention to plagiarism, the average academic might assume, has to be a good thing. Yet there was also a lot about this article, and associated editorial, that stuck in my throat: not least the latter’s conclusion that ‘the answer … must be the assumption of possible wrongdoing’. Surely there has to be a better way.
Of course, if The Times really wants to involve itself in public discourse, it would go open-access. For what it’s worth, a trace of the article is here. Then The Independent repurposes it – all its own work, kind of – here. And the Huffington Post – ditto – does the same. If you want to read The Times, I’d recommend picking up a copy for free when you spend £5 in Waitrose on a Saturday. In my opinion its recipes are more manageable than The Guardian’s.
I’d also suggest that if The Times wants to be taken seriously it should get some advice on statistics. Is there really an ‘epidemic’ of plagiarism? We’re told that there have been 50,000 recorded cases of cheating, across 129 universities, over the past three years. But they provide no comparator data, either for previous periods or other countries. It’s also pretty obvious that different universities interpreted the data requests differently. I just can’t believe, for instance, that there is 59 times more cheating at Kent than Lancaster. (I mean, didn’t it even occur to them that this just might be bonkers?) Nor did the journalists consider the possibility that, if the figures actually have risen, we might simply be getting better at detecting plagiarism than we were in the past.
Nonetheless, plagiarism happens, at all levels. Vice-chancellors have lost their jobs over plagiarism; students are perhaps no more nor less dishonest than any other group of people, and plagiarism is the cheat’s way to success in an academic context. I’ve spent a lot of time, over my years as a lecturer, pursuing and prosecuting plagiarists. I appreciate the frustration and the rage.
But I still think that an assumption of potential guilt is wrong. Academics, somewhat awkwardly, hold dual roles on this front: we are educators, supporting individuals in their learning; and, when the circumstances demand it, we are police. But I think it’s critical to be educators first, and therefore to start from an assumption that our students are honest and keen to learn. To assume guilt is to create universities of us and them, police and criminals.
But this is not to suggest that we should do nothing. Several years ago I visited an American liberal arts college, where a student declared that they don’t have invigilators in exams, because nobody cheats. When any student enters the college, she (it was a women’s college) signs an ‘honour code’. Thereafter, any offence against that code is considered an offence against the body politic of the college. When offences do occur, they are ‘policed’ by students and staff together.
Granted, liberal arts colleges are unique environments: small, privileged, socially and academically intense. But how might this model help us rethink our approaches to ‘academic discipline’? What would happen if we started with trust rather than suspicion?
These questions led me, when I had some control over this sort area at Exeter, to develop ‘The Exeter Ethos’. Working with a group of staff and students in the College of Humanities, we identified three key values: integrity, civility, trust. We then asked ourselves what this ‘ethos’ might mean in practice. One commitment we made, as a result, was not to assume plagiarism, and in practice not to use turnitin.
Actually, I think there are all sorts of reasons not to use turnitin. It promises more than it delivers, and does nothing to catch the most insidious form of plagiarism, the essay mills. But the principle is critical: as members of an academic community, we begin with the assumption that we are all behaving ethically.
I’ve written before about utopian thinking – and I’m aware that 2016 is the 500th anniversary of More’s masterpiece – but I think this is realistic. The key challenge, of course, might come from colleagues in departments with high numbers of international students, and hence with student communities that are far more diverse than anything I have ever experienced. I don’t entirely trust the data in The Times, which liberally casts aspersions on students from particular countries; however, there’s no question that many international students come from different cultures of learning, and are under huge pressures to return home with a degree. Some cheat.
These contexts present us with very real challenges. Universities are changing. But perhaps this gives us more reason than ever to insist upon our core values – our ethos in an academic community – and commit ourselves to educating our students in these values. That’s not always going to be easy, but it seems to me not only preferable to the alternative, but also an ethical way of handling people who are paying a lot of money for their education.
Sceptics will be wondering what has become of the Exeter Ethos. Well, it’s still there; although, to be honest, it hasn’t achieved the prominence we hoped. We anticipated embedding it into the curriculum; we planned, also, structural changes, such as training students to be involved in disciplinary panels. But momentum lapsed: academics move from role to role (as happened to me), and I’ve learned that something like this requires institutional commitment over years to ensure it becomes embedded in a culture.
But I’m not abandoning the optimism that brought it about. An assumption of guilt is no place to start in educational relationships.